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In NASCAR this season, friendship is fleeting. So what to look for in the Daytona 400?

  Denny Hamlin's crew checks out the remains of his primary Daytona 400 car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Wanna a friend in NASCAR this season?
   Find a dog.
   "Everyone is driving so aggressive that friendships in this garage are few and far between right now," Denny Hamlin says.
   No kidding.
   Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, 1-2 in the Sprint Cup standings, will be on the front row for Saturday night's Coke 400 (7:30 p.m. ET). Rain washed out qualifying, and the field was set by points and rules.
   "Being able to keep the throttle on the floor for more than four or five laps, that will be key," Harvick says.
   If the yellow comes out with five laps to go, Harvick says he expects drivers to give up track position and pit for fresh rubber. "You'll need it, for all the pushing and shoving on the restart," Harvick says. "But if you're the leader, you'd better have the 10 or so behind you stop for tires too, or you'll be in trouble."

   Greg Biffle: How fast is too fast? We may find out Saturday night (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 

   Finding friends this season hasn't been easy. At Sonoma Jeff Gordon was the great aggravator; at Loudon, N.H., it was Juan Pablo Montoya. Thursday here it was Kyle Busch....for which he is sheepishly apologizing.
    Friends? Well, typically at these plate races drivers try to make and keep friends, at least for the duration.
    However even teammates are having their problems this season: Hamlin had to go to a backup for Saturday night's 400 after a drafting mistake by teammate Busch.
   Ironically Busch and Hamlin will be starting side-by-side in the second row.
   "If you've got a fast car, people will work with you," Busch says, looking at the 400. "And if you don't have a fast car, they won't."
   Still, this season of 'Boys, have at it' may be reaching its zenith: Remember Pocono, remember Charlotte, remember Atlanta, remember Loudon......
   It's been a year of racing angrily.
   "It puts everyone in a bad mood on certain weeks...." Hamlin frets.
    "You try to keep those incidents to a minimum....it's so hard.  Even when you try to drive conservative on these restarts, you can't help but get in the middle of some mess, because it's all around you. 
    "They split you three-wide or four-wide -- and I'm the first one to do it as well.
    "And the intensity on restarts....the only time you can really make up time. So it's going to be tough to stay out of trouble.
   "Everyone is pushing to either make a chase spot, or keep your seat, or keep a sponsor. There's so much pressure.... The intensity has just picked up dramatically on the race track, and that's why you've seen the aggression.
   "I haven't been around long; this is only Year Five. But I can tell you in 2006 the racing was nothing like it is now. Especially on restarts.  It is a totally different ballgame; you drive totally different. 
    "I'm driving pretty hard and I'm still getting freight-trained by everyone.
    "And everyone is just banging off of each other..."
    Add to that this worn-out asphalt: "The track just doesn't have any grip left," Hamlin said. "The track is slicker than I've ever seen."

  They've been knocking 'em out like Johnny B. Goode: Crew chief Jimmy Elledge checks out what's left of Reed Sorenson's car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   So what to expect here?
   Well, if they keep crashing.....
   And the speeds in the draft may be an issue.
   "It's tremendously faster," Greg Biffle says. "Greg Erwin (crew chief) told me it was about a second (a lap faster) faster. 
   "You can feel the sensation of speed.
    "That's pretty fast for July. So I wouldn't rule out somebody (NASCAR) changing the plate (to less power) yet."
   Just what that might mean here, where handling is always a challenge over a long run, isn't clear.
   "Faster is kind of always better...but that's not always the case," Biffle says.  "What it's going to do is give the car more acceleration. 
   "We're all going to run down into the corner two or three-wide, bunched up...and after we get about three laps on our tires, everybody is coming out of the gas.
    "But what's going to happen is when you go back to the gas it's going to have a lot more acceleration.
    "So I think you're going to be able to complete passes easier with that extra power. 
    "I think the better handling cars are going to have more of an advantage with that bigger plate because they're going to be able to put the gas down and accelerate away from the guy they're racing with."

  Kevin Harvick: Atop the Sprint Cup standings and on the pole for Saturday night's 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    So you want some predictions for Saturday night?
   The Biff says good luck: "When you look at the rundown in February, and look at the rundown at Talladega (in April), and look at the rundown of this July race, and the Talladega race in the fall, the top-10 don't look like the normal top-10 of any other tracks we go to," Biffle says.
    "That's because of luck. And a lot of it is being in the right line at the right time. And a lot of it is missing the accident."
   Mark Martin is also uncertain of just what to expect this time: "The thing I saw in February here, that I was really surprised about -- we weren't able to separate ourselves like we had been in the past.
    "We stayed packed up, or locked on to one another. We weren't able to shed one another like we had been in the past.
    "So we may still have that.
    "I like to race Daytona where, after a little while, you can really do one-on-one racing. But I don't think it's going to separate out that much even this time."


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   It's a good thing NASCAR has all these guys well-protected with all this safety gear. The way they've been driving this season they'd better be bulletproof (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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